'Dangerous Man' Daniel Ellsberg Reflects The Pentagon Papers provoked public debate about the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who stole them from the U.S. government, is the subject of the documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America. Ellsberg talks about what it's like to blow the whistle on the government.

'Dangerous Man' Daniel Ellsberg Reflects

'Dangerous Man' Daniel Ellsberg Reflects

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Daniel Ellsberg
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The Pentagon Papers provoked public debate about the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who stole them from the U.S. government, is the subject of the documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America.

After service as a company commander in the Marines, Ellsberg went to work at the Rand Corporation as a military analyst and came to specialize on the growing war in Vietnam. A believer at first, he became convinced that the war was unwinnable, then learned from a classified historical study that it was based on lies.

Eventually, Ellsberg provided that study — thousands of top secret documents — to the New York Times and other newspapers, and what became known as the Pentagon Papers prompted a landmark Supreme Court decision on the First Amendment and fundamental reevaluation of the U.S. role in Vietnam.

Ellsberg, in conversation with Neal Conan, gives great credit to the filmmakers. "The people who did the research on this film really did some remarkable archival research," he says. Ellsberg "really almost fell over" when he saw some newsreel in the film with his head in the frame, coming down the ramp after Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara spoke to the press following a trip to Vietnam.


In the run up to the Oscars, we're going to talk about the five films nominated for best documentary. One of those pictures open in theaters this month, "The Most Dangerous Man in America," tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

After service as a company commander in the Marines, Daniel Ellsberg went to work at the Rand Corporation as a military analyst and came to specialize on the growing war in Vietnam. A believer at first, he became convinced that the war was unwinnable, then learned from a classified historical study that it was based on lies.

Eventually, Ellsberg provided that study - thousands of top secret documents -to the New York Times and other newspapers, and what became known as the Pentagon Papers prompted a landmark Supreme Court decision on the First Amendment and fundamental reevaluation of the U.S. role in Vietnam. Did the Pentagon Papers change your life? Call and tell us what you remember about the Pentagon Papers. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION

And Daniel Ellsberg joins us now from our bureau in New York City. And nice to have you TALK OF THE NATION, Daniel Ellsberg.

Mr. DANIEL ELLSBERG (Former U.S Military Analyst): It's a real pleasure to be on with you, Neal. After listening to you for so many years, it's a pleasure, it's a treat to be able to talk with you on the air.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much. It's kind of you to say. In the film, you described witnessing one of the fundamental lies of the war. I think it was your first day on the job.

Mr. ELLSBERG: That was in the Pentagon. And I was made aware within hours, by hearing Secretary McNamara and President Johnson assure the country that there was unequivocal evidence of an unprovoked attack in international waters and that we sought no wider war. I knew within hours of taking employment, by coincidence, that very same day, that everyone of statements was false and the Congress was being misled on that. It was only within a few days of that that once it became clear that there had been no attack at all on our destroyers.

That wasnt clear, initially, but what was clear was of the statement that there was unequivocal evidence or as much unprovoked or false.

CONAN: The Gulf - that Gulf of Tonkin incident. In fact, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution became the legal framework in terms of Congress for prosecuting the war.

Mr. ELLSBERG: That's right. Years later when I revealed some of those same cables and documents that I had in my safe that night, August 4th, 1964, when I revealed them in the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, Senator Wayne Morse who's been one of the two senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf resolution told me, if you had given me, on the foreign relations committee, those documents which were now out in 1971.

If you'd given me those documents, at the time, in 1964, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution would never have gotten out of committee. And if they had brought it to the floor, it would have lost. And he was telling me that I, by telling the truth to Congress, as was my constitutional responsibility to do, I could have averted that war and 50,000 American lives and several million Vietnamese - so that's a heavy burden to bear.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. ELLSBERG: And I'm hoping to spare some other people in the future of that shame.

CONAN: There is a moment where you talk of your anguish in participating - you are an internal critic, saying, you know, this bombing policy is bad. You're trying to make it a better policy. But you say you came to an understanding that even as an internal critic, you are a participant - part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Mr. ELLSBERG: Well, my wife contributed to that later. I remember her saying, people used to say that I had acted in this revelation out of guilt over my participation. And I used to say, quickly, no, I didnt feel guilt, I was doing the best that I could at the time. I was doing what I thought was right and I didnt really feel guilty. Even looking back on it, I had been - had wrong understanding, and a wrong... And Patricia once said, you know, you always say that, but you should feel more guilty than you do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That is your wife.

Mr. ELLSBERG: That's right.

CONAN: There were many interesting moments. And you were talking about the Gulf of Tonkin just a moment ago. There's another moment, where you're - much later, flying back from Vietnam with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. You are watching him read your very pessimistic memos. You hear him talking about how things are much worse than they were a year ago. Then you land and he steps up to the microphones and says, well, it's doing great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLSBERG: That's right. The people who did the research on this film really did some remarkable archival research. And I really almost fell over when I saw that they'd found a newsreel print of me with my head - they outlined in the picture - coming down the ramp after Secretary McNamara in the very circumstances that I had described to them, you know, 30 years later on the audio, where McNamara had said literally minutes before - the film doesn't make that clear - but almost just before we landed he was saying, when I said that the situation was much the same as it was a year ago, he said: That proves what I'm saying, we can put another 100,000 troops in and nothing is changed, it's just as bad as before, that means it's really worse.

And I said: Well, that's an interesting way to put it, Mr. Secretary. I can see that. And minutes later, as we came on the ground, he went up in front of the cameras, he was saying: Gentlemen, I'm very encouraged by the signs of progress. Everywhere I see, nothing - everything is progressing. I'm very confident. And I was thinking to myself: I hope I never have to lie like that.

CONAN: Hmm. There's the - of course, we then go on to the Nixon administration. There's a fascinating part - we're going to play a little clip from the movie -you're talking about telling Henry Kissinger, who's just about to receive security clearances to read all that top secret information, and you walk in through three mental stages of what that knowledge is going to do to him. And let's hear this.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Most Dangerous Man")

Mr. ELLSBERG: First, a great exhilaration, for getting all these amazing information that you didn't know even existed. And the next phase is you'll feel like a fool for not having known of any of this. But that won't last long. Very soon, you'll come to think that everyone else is foolish. What would this expert be telling me if he knew what I knew? So in the end, you stop listening too.

CONAN: And that's a pretty apt description of the corrosive effect of top security clearance.

Mr. ELLSBERG: You know, it's - I should correct one thing there. Henry had -Kissinger - had had top secret clearance for many years, as I had in RAND. What I was really telling him was what I have - I'd had a dozen clearances higher than top secret, what are called compartmented information, when I was in the Pentagon. And I knew - as far as I knew, he did not have those earlier. He was about to get them. We were in the hotel Pierre and he hadn't gone to Washington yet. It was after the election.

And so I was really telling him the effect, the specific effect of having these much higher clearances which involve sort of listening in on the world's party line in communications, just listening to everybody, or reconnaissance, that sort of thing. He was about to get information that he didn't know existed. Now, it isn't that all that information is true. Imagine listening in on a party line in your community. You get a lot of false rumors and disinformation and mistakes. It wouldn't give you a real picture. But you would have a different sense of reality than you'd get just at a local grocery store from talking to people. So, it gives you the feeling that you're in a different world. And these other people, who don't have the clearances, don't have anything to tell you that's worth hearing.

Actually, later, in a much later conversation, the next year, I was with Kissinger in San Clemente and I was urging him to read the Pentagon Papers, which ended in 1968, he had a copy. And he said: But do we really have anything to learn from these documents? I said: Well, yes. I think you do. And my heart was sinking at this point. And he says: But we make policy very differently now. And I said: Well, Cambodia - the fiasco debacle that had just happened in the spring - I said that didn't look so different. He said: Well, that was done for very complicated reasons. I said: Henry, every rotten decision in the last 20 years in Vietnam has been done for very complicated reasons and pretty much the same ones; political considerations, legislation in Congress, fear of being called weak, or you know, not giving the whole.

And actually, I even referred to him some of his colleagues from Harvard, led by Tom Schelling - who's in the film, by the way - who had come to him to tell him they were breaking off all relations with the government, all consulting -they were all consultants - because of Cambodia. And - so I - this came up. And he actually said to me: But they didn't have clearances. And I thought, oh God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLSBERG: He has really drunk deep of what I thought of as Circe's potion that he gave to Ulysses' troops that turned men into swine so they could no longer communicate and could no longer make their way out of the enchanted isles.

CONAN: Talking with Daniel Ellsberg, the subject of a new documentary, "The Most Dangerous Man In America." 800-989-8255; email us talk@npr.org. Jerry is on the line from Corvallis in Oregon.

JERRY (Caller): Hi. Daniel, I just want to say you're one of my heroes and I really respect what you did. I'm a Vietnam veteran and I am embarrassed to say that when I went to Vietnam, I was naive. I didn't know anything abut what was going on in the country, but we were unsettled at that time about our participation. Coming back, your book, as well as other literature on Vietnam, it provided us with an understanding that we did have a duty to serve our country but we also had an understanding then to question authority. And we were just weak. You gave us clarity of understanding and we'll always appreciate that.

Mr. ELLSBERG: Gee, I couldn't have a - well, I appreciate that comment very much and I couldn't hope for a better response. In your life, specifically of course, you went through the same process I did. You read what I put out. I read it first and it changed my life when I realized in the earliest years that this supposedly noble cause, which I accepted, as President Reagan called it, and even President Carter called it, had been from the beginning - the support for the French effort to reoccupy a former colony against people who had been fighting 2,000 years against foreign occupation very successfully. So it was both hopeless and wrong. And that's what brought me to the conclusion that what we were doing was not just hopeless, it was not just dumb, as President Obama might have called it. But it was wrong.


Mr. ELLSBERG: And that meant...

JERRY: (Unintelligible) comment that I think you might have helped McNamara in his book, "In Retrospect," come to an understanding of his participation, and his apology was heartfelt as well.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jerry. Appreciate it.

JERRY: Okay.

CONAN: There is - we're talking with Daniel Ellsberg. Again, the film is "The Most Dangerous Man in America."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And you talk about the conflict - the personal conflict in the film. And one of the most interesting parts is when you copied the Pentagon Papers, it took many days to get all those papers out to the Xerox machine and copied, and then you're talking about the effect on your friend, the man who was the president of the RAND Corporation, and the feeling that this - he might take this as betrayal and it may cost him his job.

Mr. ELLSBERG: Well, he did take it as betrayal, understandably. I was his close friend. He was really my closest friend. And that was perhaps the - of course, Nixon had very big costs in mind for me by indicting me for 115 years.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ELLSBERG: But he didn't really manage to inflict those. And the costs that I did foresee was the loss of a kind of work that I loved and in particular that I was going to harm the career of my closest friend, Harry Rowen. And that was very anguishing. But I couldn't see any way to avoid that, and at the same time be true to the oath that I'd actually taken. And that was not an oath to the secrecy system or to the president or to the RAND Corporation. It was an oath to support and defend the Constitution. And that was clearly being flouted from the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, when Congress was maneuvered and manipulated by lies into a hopeless and wrongful war, just as we were maneuvered into a war of aggression, essentially, against Iraq in the absence of the U.N. security decision in that way.

And I'm sure the people over in Iraq right now believed, as I did when I was in Vietnam, that there must be a legitimate rationale for what they were doing. And they're bound to clutch at, or invent ones, or be told that, for instance, they were fighting somebody who had inflicted 9/11 on us in Saddam Hussein. That was untrue. But the administration was telling them that, or that they were fighting the possibility of WMDs there; it was false.

And now, in Afghanistan, the idea - it isn't as though - yes, we were attacked by people who were based in Afghanistan. And, yes, there could be future dangers in Afghanistan. But when President Obama raises the issue a dumb war, the kind that he says he's against, how could there be a war dumber than trying to occupy Afghanistan, which gave Alexander the Great the hardest fighting in three years he encountered anywhere in the world, that defeated Gengis Khan, defeated the British granted, they didn't have air power; but the Soviets had air power. And anybody - I see in op-ed in the New York Times today complaining that the lack of air power for fear of civilian casualties is going to endanger our mission. And (unintelligible) a cartoon in there are the bomber with one wing tied behind its back. It's the famous arm tied behind their back.

The Soviets didn't tie any arms behind their back and they didn't send any helicopters and planes with one wing over there. They killed a million Afghans in the process of losing 15,000 Soviets. And they lost. They had to get out. Thanks to Gorbachev. They'd have fought on longer without Gorbachev. We need a Gorbachev right now in the White House. And unfortunately we don't have one.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Elaine. Elaine with us from Milwaukee.

ELAIN (Caller): Hi. I just had to call because I wanted to, first of all, thank Mr. Ellsberg. He is also, as the last caller said, one of my heroes. I was a junior in high school when the release of the Pentagon Papers happened. And we were also studying Vietnam at that time in junior year of high school. And we debated whether or not Mr. Ellsberg should be tried as a criminal for the release of the Pentagon Papers. I was in the minority and defended Mr. Ellsberg's actions simply because I felt at that time in being a very young girl, I said, we cannot continue to live with a blind faith in our country, in our government.

CONAN: Well, it's interesting. Elaine, the film reminds us that, in fact, the White House created something called the Plumbers Unit to plug the leaks of the Pentagon Papers. And, in fact, Mr. Ellsberg was spared the prospect of a prosecution because the Plumbers Unit broke into his psychiatrist's office to try to find records to smear his reputation. And that was deemed such a prosecutorial misconduct that all the charges were then thrown out. Of course, that Plumbers Unit went on to a few other escapades as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELAINE: Exactly. And like I say, Mr. Ellsberg, you did make me become - I was already political in nature simply because I have friends and family that did fight in Vietnam, and we were the generation that sat around and listened for the numbers on the radio. And so we were curious and we needed the education that you gave us. You made me continue with volunteering for the next few years with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and with the Disabled American Veterans. So you helped spur my activism and my interest in knowing what is really going on.

CONAN: Elaine, thanks very much.

Mr. ELLSBERG: Well, that's a wonderful comment. Again, like the previous veteran, and I love hearing it. It's the reason, really, that they - one of the reasons that Nixon and Kissinger did see danger and we - and that was that other people might be tempted to follow that example. And...

CONAN: (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ELLSBERG: It has no greater danger - when you're pursuing a secret policy from the American public because it's so reckless or criminal, you can't stand the truth.

CONAN: The film is called "The Most Dangerous Man in America." It's one of the nominated Oscar documentaries. We'll be talking about all of them on TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.

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Ellsberg's 'Dangerous' Decision: To Tell The Truth

In From The Cold Warrior: Once a Marine officer in love with his job, later a military analyst for Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara, Daniel Ellsberg had a moral awakening about the war and the way it was sold to America. Then he went public. Getty Images hide caption

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The Most Dangerous Man in America

  • Directors: Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 93 minutes

Not Rated

With: Daniel Ellsberg

Watch Clips

'Publishing The Pentagon Papers'

'War Legitimacy'

Forever defined by a single action, Daniel Ellsberg is known as the man who blew the whistle on the Vietnam War. But neither Ellsberg's choice nor its execution was simple, as Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated documentary reveals.

Filmmaker Interview

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers tells multiple stories, of which two are central: The former Rand Corporation analyst's shift from hawk to dove, and the process of releasing those famous Defense Department documents to congressmen, and later, to major newspapers. It's the latter tale that provides the tension in this unexpectedly gripping account of the Pentagon Papers case. And no mistake, if The Most Dangerous Man isn't as edgy as a fictional thriller, it's much more suspenseful than the typical after-the-fact documentary.

Narrated by Ellsberg himself, the movie follows its protagonist's disillusionment as it blossoms into the decision to copy the 7,000-page secret report on the war's conduct. (His teenage kids helped.) Then the focus switches to The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe — and the lawyer who won a landmark Supreme Court ruling against prior restraint of news reports.

The movie's off-screen chorus consists of Richard Nixon and his aides, including Henry Kissinger (the man who dubbed Ellsberg so "dangerous") and Alexander Haig. Their coarse and angry comments, taken from the White House tapes that helped end Nixon's political career, evoke both the spirit of the times and the ex-president's character: Using the sort of boilerplate outrage common to him, Nixon accuses Ellsberg of providing "aid and comfort to the enemy."

Naming Names: The film takes its title from the description an angry Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (left, with President Richard Nixon) applied to Ellsberg. AP via First Run Features hide caption

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AP via First Run Features

Naming Names: The film takes its title from the description an angry Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (left, with President Richard Nixon) applied to Ellsberg.

AP via First Run Features

It's a dubious charge. The Pentagon Papers contained a history of the Vietnam War that revealed how presidents all the way back to Truman had deceived the American people; they didn't include current military information that might have helped the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.

Ellsberg was not one of the new-left zealots who wished for Ho Chi Minh's victory. As The Most Dangerous Man shows, he was a former Marine Corps second lieutenant who considered that position the most satisfying job he ever had. What turned Ellsberg against the war was not sympathy for the Vietnamese — although he deplored indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

In part, it was personal experience: Leading a patrol in 1966, he received a firsthand lesson in the difficulties of guerrilla war against an entrenched enemy. Ellsberg was also dismayed by the gap between the public certainties and private doubts of men like his one-time boss, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. So Ellsberg began to leak documents to members of Congress. When that didn't work, he went over their heads to the readers of The New York Times.

Ehrlich and Goldsmith found plenty of interesting archival images, especially for the lesser-known first half of the story. But they sometimes rely on Errol Morris-style reconstructions of events, which are less deft than Morris'. Distractingly, they also use sketchy animation for a few sequences.

Mostly, though, The Most Dangerous Man in America lives up to its subject's importance. It's not only a fine introduction for viewers who don't remember the Vietnam era, but also offers some revelations to those who thought they knew it reasonably well.